A commonly held assumption is that the entire matter of Palestinian Arab refugees is “peripheral” to the progress of the peace process. This view is shared on all sides of the Israeli political spectrum – namely, that the Oslo peace process supersedes any interest in three million Palestinian Arab refugees, one million of whom still reside in the UNRWA (UNITED NATIONS RELIEF AND WORKS AGENCY) camps that were set up in 1949. The rest live near the camps and receive benefits from UNRWA – free services for health, education, water, electricity and some food commodities.
In 1958, Abba Eban, then Israel’s ambassador to the UN, characterized the UNRWA policy of maintaining Arab refugees in transit camps as a crass manipulation of human suffering that would only fan the flames of war against the new state of Israel. Dr. Eli Lasch, head of medical services in Gaza for Israel’s Civil Administration until 1985, asserted that UNRWA maintained Arabs at a starvation level before 1967. Israeli troops who entered UNRWA refugee camps in 1967, were shocked to discover that Jordanians and Egyptians had allowed no electricity or running water in the camps, while forbidding the camp residents to work outside of the camps. Meanwhile, however, camp residents were living according to the precise streets, neighborhoods and villages that they had left in 1948. UNRWA neglect of Arab refugees before 1967 did not foster expectations among Arabs who wallowed hopelessly in camps. Israel’s development did.
Israel’s post-1967 modernization of the Arab refugee camps provided Israeli contractors with a source of a subsidized labor force whose health, education and welfare was taken care of by UNRWA, while UN member states upgraded their contributions to UNRWA to improve quality of life in the camps. The 1998 UNRWA budget exceeds $400 Million – the only budget designed to keep refugees as refugees.
The message of the Intifada, which broke out in Gaza UNRWA camps in 1987, was that jobs, sacks of flour and running water would not provide for realization of Palestinian Arab nationalist ambitions. Palestinian Arab refugees asserted that they define their ambition as their “inalienable right of return” to the homes and villages that they left in 1948, even if they now provide land for Israeli towns, cities, and hundreds of collective farms. The “inalienable right of return” as proscribed by the biennial UN resolution #194, doesn’t compensation for Arab refugees in lieu of their return to pre-1948 homes.
UNRWA residents, who maintain the highest educational level in the Arab world, thanks to subsidized elementary and high school education, along with generous University scholarships, prepare themselves for their return. They see how a Palestinian entity with a Palestine Liberation Army has formed overnight, with international and Israeli recognition. They do not see that the realization of their dream as far off.
At a time when the Palestine Authority forbids improving UNRWA homes in anticipation of “return”, a new spirit dominates the camps. In 1998, “We’re going home” is on the lips of Palestinian Arab refugees The home that they sing of is not in the west bank or Gaza, but rather within the state of Israel proper, in the neighborhoods that they left in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ashkelon, Tzfat and the more than 200 Arab villages that now house collective farms, known as Moshavim or Kibbutzim.
The Palestinian Arab refugee population is infested with expectation.A cardinal principle of revolution holds that people whose expectations are not realized will be explode into a revolution whose goal is to overthrow the existing order.